Three days after Hurricane Michael unleashed its wrath in the Florida Panhandle, residents in some of the hardest hit areas are growing desperate for food and water.
Long lines have formed outside fire stations, schools and Salvation Army food trucks as residents try to secure anything from bottled water and ready-to-eat meals to hot meals.
Florida Governor Rick Scott tweeted on Saturday that millions of meals and gallons of water are already on the way to the impacted communities.
The death toll from Michael has risen to at least 17 and nearly 900,000 customers remain without power in seven states. The storm that smacked Florida’s Panhandle was one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the United States, leaving a trail of destruction stretching as far as Virginia. The misery from its impact will likely linger for weeks or even months.
On Saturday, emergency crews will continue descending into the coastal cities in the Panhandle, like Mexico Beach, that were wiped out and will try to reach remote areas that were isolated by downed trees and power poles.
Meanwhile in Georgia, officials are receiving reports that 84 chicken houses — estimated to hold more than 2 million chickens — were destroyed in the storm which also caused severe damage to pecan, cotton, vegetable and peanut crops.
“For me the cotton crop is as bad as it gets. I was picking three bale cotton (this week); today it is gone,” cotton farmer and state Rep. Clay Pirkle said. “Can’t tell the difference between what I’ve picked and what I haven’t.”
Wife watched her husband die
Sitting in a red pickup truck just steps away from the damaged home on Thursday, Gayle Sweet recalled the last moments she shared with her husband.
“I told him, ‘Hold on, just hold on, I’m calling for help now,” she told CNN affiliate WFTS, sobbing.
Her husband, Steven Sweet, was killed when an oak tree smashed their home in Gretna, Florida, and landed on top of her husband. The 44-year-old is among at least 17 who have died since Hurricane Michael made landfall on Wednesday.
Hours after Hurricane Michael left her home in ruins, Gayle Sweet refused to leave. Her husband’s body was still trapped in the rubble.
“Hopefully they (emergency crews) will be here soon, I’m not going anywhere until they bring him out,” she said.
Eight people, including Sweet, have died in Florida. An 11-year-old girl died in Georgia when a carport came crashing through the roof. Two out of the three people who were killed in North Carolina died when their vehicle struck a tree that had fallen because of high winds, said Adrienne Jones, deputy director for the McDowell County Emergency Medical Services.
Five people died in Virginia. Four drowned while the fifth person, a firefighter, was killed when a tractor trailer lost control on a rainy highway and hit his truck in Hanover County, Virginia.
Hospitals evacuated but operating
After evacuating hundreds of patients, hospitals heavily damaged during Michael are still finding ways to continue helping those in need.
The front door of Bay Medical Sacred Heart in Panama City was boarded up Friday and water service hadn’t been restored but a handmade sign directed patients to the emergency room, which remains operational.
The hurricane-force winds were so powerful that they lifted the roof on the hospital’s tower where most of the patients were, and water poured into the facility. About 1,500 people, including doctors, nurses and patients were riding out the storm.
“It was a very scary few hours of howling winds, windows blowing in, crashing roofs, ceilings collapsing, but patients being cared for throughout all of it,” said Dr. Amir Haghighat, a cardiologist with the Cardiovascular Institute of Northwest Florida who works at Bay Medical.
Hundreds of patients were taken to hospitals across Florida and as far as Mobile, Alabama on Friday in a parade of ambulances and medical helicopters. The hospital is staying open receiving patients in an emergency room that is running on generator power.
Newsrooms still running
In the wake of Hurricane Michael, many journalists in the Florida panhandle are living through the same nightmare as other local residents, and working in incredibly difficult conditions.
Panama City’s two biggest TV stations, ABC-affiliated WMBB and NBC-affiliated WJHG, have been off the air for days. During Wednesday’s broadcast, one of the last things viewers heard was a reporter saying, “It sounds like a train is coming over the roof of the TV station. The whole building is shaking.”
WMBB’s General Manager Terry Cole said his staff worked and slept at a church next door Wednesday into Thursday. They’ve set up chairs and cameras in the parking lot and produced their newscasts from there.
The city’s daily paper, the Panama City News Herald, was also battered by Michael and it still has no power. Cleanup crews were present when a CNN crew stopped by on Friday. But the office was pretty much empty — the journalists were all out reporting on stories.
The impact of climate change on storms
Michael’s strength may reflect the effect of climate change on storms. The planet has warmed significantly over the past several decades, causing changes in the environment.
According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, human-caused greenhouse gases in the atmosphere create an energy imbalance, with more than 90% of remaining heat trapped by the gases going into the oceans.
While there might not be more storms in a warmer climate, most studies show storms will get stronger and produce more rain. Storm surge is worse now than it was 100 years ago, thanks to the rise in sea levels.
The scientific research group Climate Central says unless the rate of greenhouse gas emissions changes, hurricanes are expected to intensify more rapidly in the coming decades.